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Christmas — from the Nativity to technology

For celebrating the holiday, historical context is an instructive place to start

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In this photo taken on Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, the Nativity scene is set up in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press

Christmas involves both a religious event of profound significance, recognition of the birth and enduring influence of Jesus, and the tangible, largely secular exchange of gifts. The former can be traced back approximately two thousand years; the latter is primarily a 20th century phenomenon.

Is the secular celebration, materialist and commercial, overwhelming the religious? That is a frequently expressed concern, not limited to strongly religious circles.

As usual, historical context is an instructive place to start. Hans J. Hillerbrand, Professor Emeritus of History and Religion at Duke University, provides encyclopedic background information in the entry on Christmas he wrote for Britannica.com.

The word “Yule”, with ancient Anglo-Saxon and German roots, originally referred to the feast celebrating the Winter Solstice, the period during Dec. 21 or 22 when the sun is the furthest south in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere.

Associated words in Latin languages, for example “Noel” in French, strongly imply nativity. The German word “Weihnachten” means hallowed night.

Professor Hillerbrand also discusses modern Christmas. He points out that the contemporary Christmas holiday celebrated on Dec. 25, characterized by commerce and exchange of gifts, is very much a recent phenomenon.

For the Puritans who settled in North America after fleeing the United Kingdom, Christmas was devoid of any ostentation or expressions of joyfulness. That, however, was not characteristic of Catholic or Protestant Europe — there were understandable reasons, after all, why the Puritans took the plunge, all the way across the extremely dangerous Atlantic Ocean, to reach the largely unknown Americas.

Evergreen trees and plants from ancient times have been understandably regarded, in various cultures, to represent rebirth or renewal. In Northern Europe, the druids, priests of the ancient Celts, used evergreens to decorate their temples. Germans brought decorated trees into their homes to celebrate Christmas as early as the 16th century.

As described on the website History.com and elsewhere, German settlers in Pennsylvania popularized the Christmas tree. Yet New England authorities generally opposed any celebration of Christmas outside of church services. After our Civil War, waves of immigrants from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, including the British Isles, successfully introduced a more festive recognition of Christmas.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the commercially viable light bulb, and business partner Edward H. Johnson placed electric lights on Christmas trees in the early 1880s. President Grover Cleveland further stoked public acceptance by adding electric lights to the White House Christmas tree.

Emphasis on feasting and gifts can overshadow the fundamental religious origins and dimensions of Christmas. However, ignoring the religious aspect is not the reality for many millions of Americans and others around the world, not all Christians.

Prosperity, widespread for the first time in history after World War II, makes possible exchange of gifts involving substantial expenditures of money — something that only a tiny percentage of the population could manage in earlier times.

Technological innovation influenced the evolution of the ways Christmas is celebrated. The electric light bulb is only one example.

Generosity to people in need beyond one’s own immediate family and friends is a fundamental moral obligation. Nonprofit organizations, an Anglo-American tradition, help bridge the apparent divide between self-interest and community.

So does our human nature. We appreciate Adam Smith, who emphasized self-interest. However, he also emphasized “fellow feeling” — our concern for others.

Learn more: Hans J. Hillerbrand, “The Protestant Reformation”; Adam Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “The Wealth of Nations.”

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). Contact acyr@carthage.edu